As a former consultant himself, David Fields knows the risks of communities not aligning around clear goals and values before starting a project, a lesson he’s bringing to his new role as Houston’s first Chief Transportation Planner.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Fields: David Fields
Cohen: We’ve got a great conversation coming up with David Fields in Houston, Texas. L’erin, what jumped out to you with David?
Jensen: Community engagement; it just keeps coming up in our conversations, and he tells a great story of a community that doesn’t move forward on projects unless the community buys in. What about you, Josh?
Cohen: You know, I asked David about the six percent of Houston streets that are home to 60% of the fatal-and-serious-injury crashes, and he said that was a result of consistently designing streets to not be safe. That’s a telling statement from a city official and unfortunately quite true. David Fields, coming up next on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.
Cohen: Our guest today is David Fields, the Chief Transportation Planner for the City of Houston, the city’s first ever person to hold that role. He came to the city from his prior role as a principal at Nelson/Nygaard Consulting. Early in his career, David worked as a planner at Parsons Brinckerhoff and Metro-North Railroad. Welcome to The Movement, David.
Fields: Hi, thanks so much.
Cohen: Before we jump into some of the harder questions, I want to get your input on one of my favorite things about Houston, which is the food. What’s been the best regional food that you’ve been introduced to since you’ve been to Houston?
Fields: It is pretty amazing how much of a food city Houston is.
Fields: There are a lot of ways I’m learning Houston doesn’t get credit on the national and international scene that it deserves, and food is definitely one of them. I’m probably supposed to say something along the lines of barbecue.
Cohen: I mean, you could. You could.
Fields: And I’m still learning and experiencing different barbecue joints down here. But what I found immediately was amazing Indian food, which kind of caught me off guard. And we’re—my wife and I are a little bit addicted to a few different places. We have certainly had our fill of eggplant bharta and keep going for it.
Cohen: I was not expecting that. You know, you had the breakfast tacos; you had the barbecue; you had the Vietnamese crawfish; you had the kolaches. Like, I feel like there’s a lot of different, like, regional delicacies there.
Jensen: It sounds like I need to visit Houston.
Cohen: Yeah, seriously. Right? So that was, like, the easy one. Right? We’ll let L’erin jump into the meat of this.
Jensen: So, David, as the City of Houston’s first transportation planner, I imagine there’s a lot that you need to do. What are the highest priorities in setting up this role in the office? And maybe before you jump into that describe Houston for those people who haven’t ever been there.
Fields: Sure. So Houston’s this really, really interesting place. First of all, it’s huge. And it’s worth putting it into scale. Houston is 670 square miles. And in case that’s hard to visualize, think about eight Washington D.C.s or six Atlantas.
Fields: Yeah, so it goes for a really, really long time. And when you get to something that big then you start to realize that it is not just one thing; it is all sorts of urban forms; it is all sorts of neighborhoods and communities. And because we don’t have zoning here it doesn’t follow what you would imagine are kind of traditional American city development patterns because the city wasn’t constrained that way. A lot of people look upon that as a negative, but from the transportation side it’s actually worked really in our favor because zoning—I’m sure you’re all aware—really separated land uses.
So residential could be over here, and commercial could be over here; going back to your first question, restaurants had to be much farther away from where people lived. But from the transportation side, because those aren’t separated as much we have a lot of proximity to a lot of things, and you can do a lot of trips just staying in your local neighborhood. You can walk there. We’ll probably get to this later, but people are biking there much more. You don’t always have to get in your car to do everything, which is a very different mindset than people realize about Houston.
And then going back to your other question about this position specifically and the highest priorities, it all starts with safety. Because Houston is so big and for a very long time cars have been the dominant mode, we have not given nearly enough focus on the safety of our roadways. Right now over 200 people die in crashes on our roads every single year for the past five years and over a thousand people are seriously injured. Those are just numbers that are hard to swallow, and a lot of the genesis of this position was that the mayor said, “We’re not going to accept this any longer. We are going to prioritize.” It started with the mayor’s Vision Zero executive order and announcement last year. And we are days away at this point from releasing our Vision Zero action plan which says, “We have the tools to reduce those fatalities and crashes, and the very basics of government should be health and safety, and this is where we’re going to prioritize.” So while it’s a huge city and there’s a lot to do, everybody should be able to cross a street safely.
Cohen: Some of the data I saw was really, really interesting. So one was that almost 60% of the fatal-and-serious-injury crashes are on only six percent of the streets of Houston. I mean, I’ve heard similar things in other communities, but just to see that data just kind of broken down there for Houston, I think, was really, really impactful. What does that mean? Like, what’s going on there, I guess?
Fields: Yeah. It is really a great story on a few different levels. So, to be clear, of all of our streets throughout the city, 60% of our crashes happen on six percent of the streets. What that tells us is a few things. One, we have consistently designed a few streets to not be safe. And this data really helps us say, “Okay, there are consistencies where crashes are happening, where people are dying, and we can start redesigning not just one-on-one individual places, individual segments, but we can start looking at templates that would be safer, and we can start applying it and quickly adapt much faster than if it was on 60% of crashes on 60% of our streets.”
Fields: So that consistency is really useful. But I think there’s a deeper story here. Everything we do in planning certainly has a public engagement component but has to be data based. And this data analysis that has really been our focus over the last year really shows the justification for why it is not just a scatter shot, “Go fix wherever the last crash happened.” We are able to focus and understand what’s going on, which means we can focus our plans and we can do it more efficiently, making really good use of people’s times and the city’s financial resources.
That really helps people come into the fold on Vision Zero and understand—look—we’re not asking for everything; we’re not going to redo every street immediately; we are going to focus on where things are bad, and we’re going to make those places better that are going to really have a significant benefit to our community.
Jensen: I’m kind of curious to know what part of the city are some of these streets located at, and how do you communicate that to the rest of the community that maybe is like, “Hey, why are we spending all of our resources over there when there’s bad streets here too?” And they may not have the same amount of crashes, but perhaps, you know, they have potholes or they’d like for them to be repaved or widened?
Fields: Yeah. So I’m going to start with the end of that question first. So certainly the city is on path to bring our streets up to what’s called State of Good Repair. It’s a long time coming, but our partners in public works have really been working on ways to get touches onto streets all around the city much more effectively and on a schedule that every street will get touched—I think it’s no less than once every 30 years, which is kind of industry standard. And when you think about how big Houston is, that’s actually not that much time around going everywhere.
But our priority is safety and human mortality at the end of the day, so when we say, “We need to focus on certain streets, and this may take precedent over that repaving,” what we learn is when we talk to people very few people come out and say, “Safety, human health is not our highest priority.”
Fields: When we identify the city’s goals, that everybody should be safe when they travel, everybody pretty much agrees with us. And then when we start asking the questions in numeric terms, we say, “So, how many deaths on Houston roads should be acceptable? Tell us the number, and we can kind of pair investments to, you know, ‘Are we okay with X number of crashes? Are we okay with Y number of fatalities?’” When we ask people these questions, the numbers get smaller and smaller and smaller.
When we ask them for a number, they randomly may pick something. You know, they may say a hundred or a thousand. And when we ask them, “Okay, how many deaths on our roads are okay if they’re your family members?” each and every time we hear, “Zero.” So if that is the priority for people, that is where we can focus and invest.
Cohen: You know, L’erin, what that recalls to me is some of the work that we talked about in Leadership Upside Down, just really kind of coming at that from a values standpoint, which is like, “What are the values of our community?” And I really like how you’ve oriented that conversation around safety, because I think it really has a clear value. Right? And it obviously is much more impactful than—unpaved roads are annoying, but when you’re talking about hundreds and thousands of people that are getting seriously injured or dying from a road, you can see how that can, like, have a higher import there compared to just, “Hey, I hate hitting potholes.” You know?
So, David, let’s maybe kind of dig into a topic that the mayor brought up when he announced your hiring, and that’s silos. Right? And I think about, you know, certainly in your area you’ve got Houston Public Works; you’ve got Houston Metro, which is the transit system; you’ve got Texas DOT; you’ve got your MPO; you’ve got the Houston-Galveston Area Council. I want to really dig into this a little bit from the standpoint of how you’re tactically addressing those silos.
Fields: Yeah, it’s really important for us to be effective in the work we do, that for lack of a better term we don’t get in each other’s way and that we’re actually all moving in the same direction. So I actually want to break some of these down individually because there are different approaches depending on who we’re talking about. So first up is Houston Public Works. So the transportation planning division is in the planning department. And we regularly are partnering, talking to, working with our counterparts at public works. We’re effectively the planners, and there are effectively the builders and the engineers and builders. And there are some planners on both sides; there are some designers on both sides, but if you’ve got to break down those skills.
I’ve worked with a lot cities in my career, and very frequently I’ve heard, “Yeah, the planners and the engineers, they’re not really on the same page. They don’t talk all that much.” That is not true here. It is such a siblinghood. They are our counterparts; we’re always working together on things. And it makes such a difference when we’re starting at the same place, that safety conversation, what we are trying to do for our city, and then let’s go out there together and do it. And I want to be clear; that doesn’t mean we always agree. I was just having a back and forth with one of our colleagues in public works where we were coming at a project from different viewpoints trying to solve different things or prioritizing different components of it. But what was great was it was a conversation; it was a dialogue; we were able to figure out where we were coming from and figure out what those tradeoffs needed to be. And at the end of the day the next time we’re going to have the same type of conversation because we’re working together on it. It’s not what you see everywhere, and it adds so much value to our city when all the team is kind of running in the same direction.
The next one—and it’s a little bit different—is Houston Metro, the transit agency down there. So for anybody not familiar, METRO is the city and the county transit provider. They have done an amazing amount of work in the last five to 10 years kind of to recraft, to focus on their planning. They did what’s called a comprehensive operations analysis and redid their transit network a few years ago, won a bunch of national awards, and put out METRONext, which is the long-term transit plan, where investments are going to be.
And I tease all that up because it’s really important for us to remember that they are our transit agency.
The City of Houston is never getting into the transit operations business. Their transit plan is the City of Houston’s transit plan. We are in lockstep that them doing their job and carrying all those people every single day, every single year is a key part of us and our multimodal approach. So we work together on it; they are the leaders of that; and when we can say, “Look; the transit piece is clear and documented, and we know where we’re going to build upon it for pedestrian access, for how we redesign our streets,” well, you know, A, that takes some pressure off of us, but it lets the people who can implement it do that implementation so that we have a network we can use. So when people talk about METRO’s transit plan, we actually stop them at this point, and we say, “No, that’s the city’s transit plan.”
Fields: And then kind of our bigger, regional partners, Texas DOT and Houston-Galveston Area Council, HGAC, they’re our metropolitan planning organization, our MPO. So they help organize the region. They are the conduit to a lot of federal funds. They are leading in a lot of ways that we are trying to learn from and get to what they’ve already started doing in the region. So the city has no, I’m hoping your listeners know, transportation demand management program.
Cohen: Mm-hmm. Sure.
Fields: But HGAC does. They have been helping communities all through the region for a while on commute program, on carpooling, on certainly working with METRO. And this is a real opportunity where we need to jump into that pool, and we can learn a lot from what’s already been effective from HGAC. So that’s going to be a complimentary program in the long run, and we really appreciate the work. They also do a lot of neighborhood or community planning with their Livable Centers program. So there have been several in the City of Houston, and that helps us bring together; that provides some resources that we can implement long-term, but they help us get there.
And then of course Texas DOT; they run the state roadway networks. They provide a lot of focus and resources. And while we are responsible for our city streets, they are partners, and we partner with them a lot. And you may be familiar; we are working with them right now on plans for the I-45 project and North Houston Highway Improvement Project. We are coordinating, and we’re looking to even make that project better, but at the end of the day that’s a TxDOT project, and we recognize there is a role and responsibility for all of these people around the table. So making sure that we’re not forgetting about each other but letting each other kind of lead where the skills lie and recognizing that we bring the different voices to the table are really how we’re going to get this humongous transportation network up and really where we need it to be.
Cohen: That all sounds amazing. And, you know, certainly I hear the shared values is kind of a key one and maybe some of the mutual respect, which I think is really great. Is there something special about Houston here that is, like, leading to this kind of congeniality here? Because certainly in some other parts of the country you have some more turf battles and you have some short-term thinking and political pressure, so forth.
Fields: You know, and I shouldn’t make it sound a completely rosy and every email is signed beautifully and everybody knows what everybody is doing. There are certainly projects that we are coming at it from different viewpoints and what we’re trying to get to may vary, but one of the things that’s—where I started with on the scale of Houston, at 670 miles there is so much that needs to get done and so many people who would like to do the right thing here that part of it is, “Pick a project and go do it in a way that we can all agree on but we don’t need to get in each other’s way on every single project.”
When—you know, some of the communities I’ve worked on that are smaller where everybody wants to work in downtown and there’s no opportunity to do other things otherwise, is it—it can sometimes be more difficult because it’s unclear who is the lead, who gets to make the decision at the end of the day. There is so much we need to do and that people want to get done here that it kind of gives us space to figure out who is the right lead.
Cohen: Hmm. That’s interesting. I wouldn’t have thought of that. That’s a good perspective.
Jensen: In your career as a consultant, you’ve had the opportunity to see hundreds or even thousands of local officials, community advocates, and nonprofit leaders. What did you learn from the best of those leaders?
Fields: I’m going to hopefully have time for two examples. So, one, I want to start with a smaller city. I’m hoping everybody at some point gets the chance to go to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ann Arbor, as many of you know, University of Michigan is there. They’re very active in their community participation. They’ve got a great downtown with several different neighborhoods. Years ago I was working for the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, and we were doing a parking plan and a multimodal access plan. And what they told us was, “Nothing goes through Ann Arbor if the community doesn’t want this to go through. And plans for decades have in different topics just not gone anywhere because there wasn’t enough engagement.” And we took that very seriously, so we developed our whole scope around ways to engage the community.
So we had different focus groups on different topics, check-ins with different neighborhood associations, with the business community, with the students. And let’s call it—it was probably about a year-long process. We checked in with city council regularly, planning commission, task forces, advisory committees, but at the end of the day when we presented the plan the final step was to present it to city council. And this was always the everybody-holds-their-breath moment because any city councilperson could effectively say, “Nah, you need to go back to the community. We’re not sure you’re on the right track here.” And it had happened before on different topics.
And what happened was we announced we were going to city council, and, you know, we advertised like crazy. One person got up to speak, said, “Yeah, we like the plan,” and nobody else showed up. And we were a little bit nervous. Like, “Does that mean we’ve failed because we didn’t have lines of people supporting it and we didn’t have statements?” And city council turned to us and said, “Oh, this is fabulous. We would know if the community was against it. You have talked to so many people and communicated so well and gotten everybody on board; there is no one out there trying to stop this. We’re ready to move forward.”
Cohen: Where did that come from?
Fields: It was the time spent talking to people. It was hearing what they had to say and not just kind of writing it down and saying we had talked to them but coming back to them and saying, “Okay, you said this. Here is—well, everybody has agreed the plan needs to do. Here are a few ways we have figured out that it could accommodate it. What do you think?”
Cohen: I’m getting at more like kind of the original thesis that you laid out, that the community only does something if the community is for it. Is that something that’s just kind of by the nature of it being a university community? Is that by nature of a leader that had been there for a long time and helped kind of shape that or helped bring that to the forefront? I guess I’m trying to figure out, like, why aren’t there more Ann Arbors, I guess, like that.
Fields: I think, it’s part of the culture there. They are, as a—not to generalize too much, but a population that has historically been very invested in their government, in their city government. Many different people at times in their lives have run or served in different officer positions either on councils or different seats like that. And, I think, part of it is the university being there, that it is a pretty well educated community, and they recognize that the value of democracy is the opportunity to be involved, to see your community be what you want it to be. And they take it really seriously.
I think there are some other examples of it throughout the nation. Arlington, Virginia comes to mind where they have a very similar process. They’ve actually named that kind of thought pattern the Arlington Way. And, you know, when you get to some of these communities and you just see how committed they are to participate, not to stop, but to participate to make the plans better, it’s pretty refreshing.
Jensen: You said you had another example. Would you like to—
Fields: I do. And it’s from an even smaller, I think, community, certainly on the smaller side. It’s a small city called Gladstone, Missouri. And Gladstone is basically surrounded by Kansas City and North Kansas City. It’s just north of Kansas City. And we were asked to come in and do a walkability study and some parking work and a lot of the good, fun, multimodal components. And, again, it was very community driven. We had this great time where we basically set up shop in their community center for five days and said, “Anytime between 8:00 in the morning and 8:00 at night that you members of the public are available, just come out and see us. We will walk over, if there is something you want to show us. We’ll walk to crosswalks; we’ll walk over to the bus stop, or we’ll have maps inside if the weather is not good. Just come talk to us.”
So we did, and we had a ton of people come out at different times. We had many people who were working jobs come in the evenings. We had several people who were retired just kind of stay with us for several hours during the day. And council was very happy. They adopted the plan. There wasn’t anything too contentious, but the quirk was, I think it was a Monday night we went to city council and they adopted it, and then myself and my team and the planners who we were working with on the city side went out to dinner after to celebrate. And we talked to them about, “Okay, so now that the plan is there, how long will it take to start implementing the first few pieces that we laid out?” And they turned to us, and they said, “Oh, that’s tomorrow. Tomorrow we start designing the sidewalks.”
And it was so pleasantly shocking to hear that this wasn’t going to be a plan on the shelf, that it wasn’t even going to be a week later or a month later, that they had waited for us to help us get to this point and then they were going to run with it as champions from there. We were talking—you know, if we were having dinner at, you know, call it nine o’clock, twelve hours later they were going to start implementation. How great is that?
Jensen: Yeah, that’s amazing. So what I’m hearing from both of these stories—and correct me if I’m wrong, please—is really just the importance of involving the community throughout the entire process, from the very beginning getting involved, seeing what members of the community want for their community, the best way they see to move forward with it, and then your job as a planner and as engineers is kind of to, like, tackle that where obviously community members may not be experts in transportation planning or in engineering but they have the ideas and the visions and the values, like Josh spoke to earlier. And so if you just kind of coalesce around those things and build the product, then you can get buy-in and, like you said, just move forward.
Fields: That’s absolutely right. There’s one other piece I would add that I’m really learning here in Houston, is we’re frequently asked to join the community. And they will say, you know, “Here is our issue, and this is the solution we want.” Whether it’s speed bumps or stop signs or road redesign or a parking plan or whatever it is, they say, you know, “This is what we’ve seen, and this is what we want to fix it.” And what we’re trying to do more and more when we go out to the community is say, “Tell us that first half. What are the problems that you are seeing that make your community unhappy for you in whichever way? And then as your planners and engineers, as your technical experts, let us come back with a whole host of ways that we could solve that for you. And we’ll work with you to figure out which is the right one here,” but as opposed to you saying, “This one is the thing,” there are other options out there.
Cohen: That they may not even know about. Right?
Cohen: But, I think, one thing obviously they can do—and perhaps this is part of that—is that they can speak to kind of, again, more the values part of that, which is, you know, what’s important as part of that solution. Right? Even if they can’t name the actual solution—right—whether it’s a speed bump or a dedicated bike lane or whatever, but if they say, you know, like, “the value is,” let’s say, “safety,” or the value is access or whatever, then you can say, “All right. Well, with those values to help guide us, then we can kind of come together with a suite of potential solutions that meet those needs and solve the underlying problem.” Right?
Jensen: This is all reminding me of—I had a professor in undergrad, a political science professor. One of the books that he wrote is called Controlling Technocracy. And it’s essentially this idea that technocrats shouldn’t make all of the decisions along the way. They may be experts in their field, but they’re not experts in the community and the community needs. And so their job is to execute, help along the way, but not be dictators.
Fields: Yeah. That’s exactly right. I have a favorite expression from my time in consulting, which, “Never let a consultant tell your community its goals.”
Cohen: Hmm. That’s good.
Jensen: I like that. Yeah.
Cohen: I like that a lot. And now that you’re on the other side, now you know to be aware of that. Right?
Cohen: Well, and I guess the best consultants are the ones who are helping to surface those goals from the community. Right?
Fields: That’s exactly right. That’s the role.
Cohen: Yeah. David, thank you so much for joining us. This has been such a great introduction into Houston and some of the challenges and also opportunities there that you’re facing as well as some of the lessons that you’ve learned along your career in a lot of different cities both big and small. So thank you so much for joining us on The Movement podcast.
Fields: Thanks so much for having me today. Appreciate it.
Jensen: Thanks, David.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.
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